First off, one thing needs clarifying: If you feel alert and happy throughout the day, chances are you’re getting enough sleep, even if you’re not clocking the recommended amount, says Dr. Jim Horne, a professor emeritus of psychophysiology at Loughborough University and the author of Sleeplessness. And whenever a couple of nights, or even a full week, of bad sleep leaves you dragging, it’s still not a crisis—you can undo the damage.
“There have been a lot of warnings that if you don’t get seven or eight hours every night, you’ll develop high blood pressure, diabetes, or obesity,” says Horne. “But the evidence shows that’s not true.” To get back on track after a few lousy nights, follow these easy research-based strategies.
1. Don’t worry about one bad night sleep
Your body bounces back from a single sleepless (or almost sleepless) night on its own by instinctively increasing the amount of deep sleep—the most restorative, health-boosting type—the next night, research from Northwestern University shows. To give it an assist, take a few minutes whenever you can throughout the day to meditate (here’s a beginner’s guide to meditation) or clear your mind. Your body may even start recovering during those moments of relaxation, says Horne. To really jump-start the process, try taking a short nap if you can.
2. Practice the 1/3 plan
Thankfully, you don’t have to pay back every hour of lost sleep. “It’s the deep-sleep that you really need to make up, and this is generally just one-third of the total sleep you lost,” Horne says. So if you fall short by an hour or so every night of the workweek—losing around seven hours total—you need to sleep only two to three extra hours over the weekend to regain lost deep sleep. Bonus: Naps count toward your goal.
The key is to get that extra sleep as soon as you possibly can, says Dr. David F. Dinges, the chief of the division of Sleep and Chronobiology in Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania. The longer you go without making up the time, the more likely you are to feel groggy and cranky.
3. Front-load your catch-up sleep
It may be healthier to go to bed earlier when you’re getting your makeup sleep than to snooze until noon. “The bulk of your deep sleep occurs during the first few hours after you drift off,” says Horne. The last hours of sleep are shallower and not as restorative. Besides that, “the time you wake up sets your biological clock. If you sleep in late, you’ll disrupt that clock, and you’re more likely to have difficulties drifting off the following night,” says Dr. Jerald Simmons, the founder of Comprehensive Sleep Medicine Associates, a chain of clinical sleep centers in Texas. (Read: Things which are stealing your sleep).
The bottom line: Snoozing an extra hour or two on weekend mornings is fine, but more than that can backfire.